I received a review copy of this novel from one of the authors.
Not only did the topic of this book interest me, but also the unique format with which it was written. This is the tale of those who witnessed the last hours of the famous, or infamous, city of Pompeii that was buried in 79 A.D. by the ash and soot of Mt. Vesuvius. There are a total of 6 different stories in the collection, all written by 6 different authors. Several of the characters do overlap, however, seamlessly throughout the narratives. For instance, the prostitute that The Younger Pliny visits in the first story, has a tale in her own words at the end of the collection. The stories feature men and women from different social strata during the time of the Roman Empire: a senator, an ex-soldier, a wealthy merchant and an heiress, just to name a few.
The strongest story in the collection is that which surrounds a young girl of fifteen who is an heiress to a large wine fortune. Aemilia is betrothed to marry a man that is much older than her and whom she did not choose. This situation, of course, is not uncommon among the Roman upper class who are trying to guard the virtue of their daughters and the continuance of their vast fortunes. Although she has known Sabinus for her entire life, Aemilia has never had any romantic feelings for him. But her father wants to ensure a safe and secure match for his only daughter. As the wedding day approaches, and Vesuvius erupts, we are left to wonder if the wedding will ever take place. I found the characters in this story the most developed and interesting of the entire collection.
As the fates of the various characters unfold in each story, the big question that lingers is who will survive and who will be swallowed up by the volcano? The destruction of Vesuvius makes no class distinctions and everyone, whether Patrician, Plebian or slave is not exempt from its impending doom. The suspense that lingers in each story is also a strength of the book.
I can understand the need to educate the reader about Roman customs, but some of the details given in the stories felt unnecessary and even cumbersome and pedantic. At times the stories had a bit of a textbook feel and the minutiae interrupted the flow of the story. For example, the extended description of Pliny The Younger’s first experience at a brothel was more detailed than it needed to be and superfluous to the advancement of the plot. In fact, there are a lot of details about sex, brothels, and prostitutes in this book; such lasciviousness is a stereotype that so many historical fiction books set in Rome tend to dwell upon. Furthermore, the scenes of fighting in the arena between two gladiators sounded a lot like the PowerPoint presentation I give my students when I am teaching about Roman forms of entertainment.
I do applaud the authors for using so many Latin words to describe various Roman objects, ideas and customs. However, I wonder if this is distracting to a reader who does not know Latin? I would image that, to fully appreciate the context of words such as cacator, viridarium, aedile, etc., there must be a lot of Internet searches involved with reading this book. Maybe an index of Latin terms might have been useful to the reader?
Overall, this book captures the terror that the victims of mighty Vesuvius most certainly would have experienced in their final moments. If you want to learn more about Roman culture during the 1st Century A.D. then I recommend A DAY OF FIRE.